Despite our nation's refusal to be ruled, the government that arose from the Revolutionary War has passed laws prohibiting rebellion or insurrection. Although the law is rarely invoked, it carries serious penalties. The following article provides an overview of the federal crime of rebellion and insurrection and how it differs from sedition and treason.
Rebellion and Insurrection, Sedition, and Treason
The prohibition on rebellion and insurrection arises in a brief passage found in 18 U.S. Code, Section 2383. The law prohibits the incitement, assistance, and participation in a rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States and its laws. The punishment for this crime is a fine, a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison, and ineligibility for public office.
Rebellion and insurrection refer specifically to acts of violence against the state or its officers. This distinguishes the crime from sedition, which is the organized incitement to rebellion or civil disorder against the authority of the state. It also separates the crime from treason, which is the violation of allegiance owed to one's country by betrayal or acting to aid the country's enemies.
The crimes are easily confused, but if the party wasn't acting on behalf of (or giving aid to) a foreign government they are unlikely to be charged with treason. Calls to rise up against the authority of the government by staging non-violent protests and strikes might be characterized as sedition (if they violated laws relating to these acts), but wouldn't be considered rebellion or insurrection unless the incitement included calls for violent acts such as the destruction of government property or the assault of officers of the state.
Although there are frequently concerns about statements made by media figures, on social media, or even by members of the government itself, there are two aspects of the crime of insurrection and rebellion that tend to limit its use.
The first is that, since insurrection and rebellion is a crime, private citizens do not have standing to file charges against someone. Only the government itself, acting through the Office of the Attorney General, can bring charges.
The second reason that rebellion and insurrection are rarely charged is because of the strength of the Constitution's First Amendment protection of free speech. A certain amount of hyperbole is tolerated, where there aren't accompanying overt acts. The general language of the crime also lends itself to interpretation, making prosecutions a chancier proposition.
Where possible, the government tends to level charges that are based more on actions than words. Notorious Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's many armed confrontations with the federal government resulted in a long list of criminal charges, but none for rebellion and insurrection. Their reason for choosing not to charge the crime might be evident in the outcome of the federal criminal prosecution of his sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who were acquitted of similarly vague conspiracy charges after holding an Oregon wildlife refuge in an armed standoff.
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Although rebellion and insurrection charges are rare, they should be taken very seriously. Convictions of this sort are likely to carry a significant stigma and eliminate many opportunities. Contact a local attorney for a free initial case review to learn how they can assist in your defense.